SPRINGFIELD — The weekly list for children who are counties in the state awaiting placements recommended by the Department of Children and Family Services after an assessment of their needs was held as scheduled Thursday in Cook County.
It is the filing that has produced nine violations of subpoenas and $1,000 per day fines against DCFS director Marc Smith for failing to comply with court orders to place the children in appropriate facilities as recommended by DCFS’ own assessments.
There would be no contempt allegations on Thursday. But alongside the judge, attorneys, administrators, DCFS clerks, the Illinois Attorney General and the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office, Capitol News Illinois requested and was granted permission to hear the list of so-called “stuck kids” via a Zoom call.
Hearings of juveniles are not open to the public, but media can participate with special provisions on media coverage. A judge granted a reporter access due to the media attention and public scrutiny the case has produced amid contempt findings and fines against Smith.
Advocates for the children on record, which include children incarcerated in psychiatric units beyond their discharge dates and beyond medical necessity, detail the challenges faced by children with low IQs, psychiatric disabilities, troubled families, traumatic abuse, Lack of resources and lack of accommodation options.
Cook County District Judge Patrick T. Murphy began the hearing by directing the media not to identify the youths whose cases were in court. Capitol News Illinois used pseudonyms in this report for all of the juveniles whose cases were tried Thursday.
One of the placements involved 15-year-old Allie. She was taken into care five years ago when DCFS discovered she had been sexually abused and neglected.
Since then, the girl has been in 16 or 17 placements, spending days in hospital emergency rooms, sleeping on a cot in the basement of one nursing home, and being abused in another. She was then placed in a foster home and then back into foster care where she became disruptive until she was placed in a locked psychiatric facility.
Doctors determined she was ready to be released on December 6, 2021, but Allie remained behind closed doors in the psychiatric hospital waiting for DCFS to place her. On March 4, Allie’s case formed the basis of the sixth allegation of contempt against Smith.
Whether it was contempt or circumstance, Allie was transferred to a specialty care home on April 11. For a while it seemed like she was settling in. On Easter Sunday, with the consent of her foster mother, Allie visited a friend. During that visit, an elderly family member with dementia threw bleach at the children, Allie’s attorney Kellen Michuda of the Cook County Public Guardian’s Office told the judge. Allie was briefly hospitalized.
A few days later, Allie ran away. Michuda told the judge she was concerned Allie was dating a grown man.
“I’m unable to determine how staying for months in a place you don’t need to be affects your stability. But I want to point out that she was never a runner,” Michuda told the judge.
DCFS attorney David Fox countered that Allie is in an appropriate specialized nursing home with a foster mother who is concerned about her well-being and has secured Allie a place at a charter school in Chicago.
“We’ve tried to make sure we wrap them in services and that everything is in place before we bring them into this home,” said Jacquelyn Dortch, DCFS Senior Public Administrator. “So we worked together to find the best possible placement for this minor. It seems like before she was fired, she had plans to hook up with people. I think we tried to do everything humanly possible to put them in the best possible environment.”
But Allie had run away, Michuda said, so she was worried the house wouldn’t be the best environment for Allie’s needs. Michuda asked for two weeks to see if Allie returned home before reopening the case.
Assistant Attorney General Alex Moe, who is representing Smith on the contempt allegations, asked Murphy to remove the subpoena against Smith in Allie’s case, stating that DCFS complied with the previous order and placed Allie in an appropriate environment.
“The fact that she’s now on the run is unfortunate, but that doesn’t change the fact that your orders have been fulfilled,” Moe said.
Murphy denied the motion, noting that the case and fine were stayed pending review by the Court of Appeals.
Just before the hearing ended, there were rumors about Allie. She returned to her foster home. Murphy asked about her. A DCFS official replied, “She is fine.” Allie’s next court date is scheduled for May 12.
The court then considered the case of an 11-year-old girl who had been held in a psychiatric hospital for more than a year after doctors cleared her for release. She has an IQ of 50. A judge in February ordered the girl removed from hospital and placed in a home, but she remains hospitalized.
Dortch informed the judge that DCFS wanted to conduct another psychological evaluation to determine why the child was not improving.
“The child has an IQ of 50 and you are locking him in a psychiatric hospital because the state has closed all facilities for developmentally delayed children. And of course she’s thrashing about out there. You know, from her perspective, she doesn’t know what’s going on other than the fact that she’s locked up,” Murphy replied.
Murphy further referenced previous testimony in his courtroom from a DCFS overseer, who stated that Medicaid stops paying once a child is hospitalized beyond medical necessity.
“So, according to what they said, it’s $600 a day to stay in the hospital for the first month and $1,000 a day thereafter. In this case, DCFS paid the hospital $348,000 from Illinois taxpayer funds … not federal funds to keep this child incarcerated past the date of medical necessity,” Murphy said. “You could have bought the Taj Mahal for the cost of that placement. This is bizarre!”
These were two of the times Smith was met with contempt. Of the other seven, two were deleted. Five are pending, with each of the $1,000 daily penalties remaining with the Court of Appeals.
Public watchdog Charles Golbert said it was unprecedented for a director of a child protection agency to be despised. He has never seen it in his 30 years of dealing with juvenile cases.
But the information about the children in these cases shows that psychiatric disorders and developmental delays make placement difficult.
Smith and Gov. JB Pritzker have said the elimination of specialized care during the previous administration prompted the agency to rebuild the services.
On Wednesday, at an independent event in Springfield, Pritzker touted increased funding for DCFS and advances on the agency’s tip hotline, which has a 99% response rate, compared to 50% when he took office.
“Five hundred beds were released under the previous governor,” Pritzker said. “You can’t snap your fingers and put them back. It takes years to rebuild beds for these children. So when children have to stay in psychiatric hospitals longer than necessary, which is where they may have started because they have severe mental health problems, none of us like it. But it’s something we’ve been constantly working to improve.”
Pritzker said accepting Smith’s resignation would not solve any problems.
DCFS has also been under scrutiny since December after at least five children died after contacts with the state child protection agency. They are Damari Perry, 6, from North Chicago; Sophia Faye Davis, 1, of Dawson; Zaraz Walker, 1, from Bloomington; and Tamsin Miracle Sauer, 3, of Nelson.
And DCFS investigator Deidre Silas was murdered earlier this year while checking on the welfare of children at a Sangamon County home.